Transcript of Poems, by John Keats

Image of the handwritten title page of a book, reading "Poems by John Keats"

Contributor: Deidre Lynch

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Description: Though its title page, imaged here, identifies this as the book Romanticists know as Keats’s debut volume, and though the pages following this one contain, in the identical order and layout, each line of verse that Poems, by John Keats contained in 1817, this is not that book, not exactly. This handwritten transcription of Poems was created in 1828, seven years after Keats’s death. It was commissioned by the poet’s friend Charles Cowden Clarke, who presented it to his sister, the juvenile fiction author Isabella Jane Towers, as a birthday gift. (A notice on the page facing the book’s half-title commemorates Clarke’s gift.) As a consequence of this arrangement this book has, as this title page informs us, both an author –John Keats– and a writer, J. C. Stephens (likely a professional scrivener), whose name is referenced at the foot of the page, along with Towers’s.

The value of Clarke’s gift appears to have derived as much from the labours of that writer’s pen as from the literary content the pen conveyed. For Towers did not require this transcription as a reading copy: a (printed) copy of Poems with her ownership signature can be found at Keats House in Hampstead. Why then was this book created? It is hard to say. What we can say is that its existence challenges some of our usual assumptions about Romantic-period books and European book-culture.

For instance, within the account of media time the Romantics themselves helped elaborate, manuscript is conventionally defined as that which precedes, rather than follows, print. The belated creation of this manuscript suggests, however, that, supplementing that account, we might need to acknowledge the Romantics’ attraction to the book that was literally preposterous—the book that absurdly, anachronistically, inverted that chronological order.

The existence of this version of Poems also challenges the ways we normally parse the relation between authorship and penmanship. In modern times, authors cannot only be writers, in the literal sense, since modern authorship is conditional on being printed. Yet even as (in the words of media theorist Lothar Müllar) “the printed word became the core of public life,” the Romantic era developed, as though in recoil, a veritable cult of the authorial hand. The faith that handwriting might proffer access to authors’ truest selves, even in authors’ absence, was manifested in, for example, the gathering up of authors’ unprinted papers by libraries (the purchase, e.g. by the Revolutionary-era Bibliothèque nationale of the calligraphic copies of La Nouvelle Héloïse that Jean-Jacques Rousseau had prepared from the novel’s manuscript for his patronesses the Maréchale de Luxembourg and Sophie d’Houdetot); the beginnings of autograph collections; and, especially after the introduction of lithography, frontispieces for printed books that paired authorial portraits with facsimiles of authorial signatures. That cult of the hand suggests the era’s eagerness to assimilate print to a communication model in which meaning seems anchored and delimited by a singular, self-expressive individual. In “This Living Hand” Keats himself had emphasized the uncanny dimensions of that model. When it pairs its mention of Keats with a mention of Stephens, this title page, however, sets itself at variance with this development. It separates penmanship from authorship.

The title page also heralds a volume that is the repository for “several” poems “never yet published.” Signaled with this choice of words is the inclusion within the volume of six poems not found in the 1817 Poems. Four of the additions are in Stephens’s hand, followed by two in Towers’s. Near the end of the book’s filled-up pages (about half remain in the state they were in when this once-blank book was first purchased), Towers has copied out, for instance, a poem in which Keats had likewise pondered the relationship of print and handwriting: in her retitling, “On / Chaucer’s “Floure and the Leafe”./ written in my brother’s Chaucer/ by the lamented young Poet.” At the bottom of that page she has written–just as Keats had written, though in his case he wrote in the blank space of a printed book–the initials J. K and the date, February 1817: her hand has traced the very motions his did.

The implication of “never yet published” is that these six poems’ copying out in 1828 should count as publishing. And yet this book is not accounted for very well by recent scholarly discussions treating Keats’s relationship to “scribal publication”— his embrace of the kinds of manuscript circulation that allowed him to distribute work outside the commercialized, politicized sphere of print. The book comes too late for that.

Instead it might be advisable to ally Towers’s book with the albums of her era, whose pages got filled up as the acquaintance of the books’ owners copied out over again already-published verse, requisitioning literature as the currency of friendship and relying on their handwriting to transmute the stuff of the print public sphere into tokens of intimate relation. Or perhaps one should ally Towers’s book with some equally enigmatic and similarly preposterous instances of literary handiwork by her contemporaries: for instance, the transcript of the songs in The Lady of the Lake that a teenaged Robert Chambers crafted for Sir Walter Scott around 1822, written out, as the Scottish publisher put it in his Memoir years later (with disarming candour), “in a style of peculiar calligraphy, which I practiced for want of any better way of attracting the notice of people superior to myself.” Or we might ally Towers’s book with the multiple transcripts of Lord Byron’s “English Bards and Scotch Reviewers” now squirreled away in rare book libraries, and produced by penmen or penwomen unknown: in one case (now in the Pforzheimer Collection of the New York Public Library) a transcript that was done in handwriting mimicking print, and accompanied by a title page indicating –with patent falsehood– that the book was “Printed for James Cawthorn, British Library, no. 24. . . . and Sharpe and Hailes, Piccadilly.”

Date: 1828

Subject: John Keats

Object type: manuscript book

Format: paper and ink

Publisher: Keats Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University

Catalogue number: MS Keats 3.12.


William Chambers, Memoir of Robert Chambers, With Autobiographic Reminiscences of William Chambers. New York: Scribner’s, 1872.

Jeffrey Cox, “John Keats, Coterie Poet,” chapter 3 of Poetry and Politics in the Cockney School: Keats, Shelley, Hunt and Their Circle. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998.

Angelica Gooden, Rousseau’s Hand: The Crafting of a Writer. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Frans A. Janssen. “Manuscript Copies of Printed Works.” Quarendo 41, nos. 3-4 (2011): 295-310.

Lothar Müllar, White Magic: The Age of Paper. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2014.